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Sterling Hills Golf Club owner John Zaruka has offered to deed the course over to Pleasant Valley Recreation and Park District for 30 years. The transfer would be contingent on the city approving a zoning change that would allow the course owner to develop 20 acres of the 220-acre course for housing.

The owner of Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo is offering to deed the course to the Pleasant Valley Recreation and Park District.

Owner John Zaruka proposed converting Sterling Hills into a public golf course and deeding it to the district under a negotiated 30-year lease agreement “that would involve very little risk to the district,” he told board members last week.

Zaruka, who bought the property for $6 million in 2017, said his offer is contingent on receiving approval from the City Council allowing him to sell 15 to 20 acres of the golf course to a home developer in order to keep the course open for the next decade and beyond. Otherwise, he said, he may ultimately be forced to unload the entire 220-acre property.

“People have asked me what happens if I (don’t get approval for the development), and I say, ‘I’ll sell (the course) and take my losses. Then who knows who you’re going to get,’” he told the park board on Aug. 8.

Zaruka announced in late 2018 that he wanted to find a developer to build homes on a portion of the 18-hole course. Selling the land was necessary, he said, to pay down debt and finance repairs needed to keep the 20-year-old course sustainable. His plan quickly riled some Sterling Hills homeowners who say a housing development there would obstruct views and potentially lower property values.

As part of the deed offer, he told the park district’s long-range planning committee— which included board members Mark Malloy and Neal Dixon—last week, once the development is approved by the city, the district would take possession of the deed to the golf course. The park district would then lease back the property to Zaruka for 30 years.  After the 30 years are up, the golf course would be given wholly over to the park district.

“We would do a contract where it would be a very modest lease payment, but you would own the land. We would manage the golf course, which we do now. We pay all the expenses,” he said.

Board members were taken somewhat aback by Zaruka’s proposal, with several members looking visibly surprised. Members said they would need time to fully explore the offer.

“It’s not often that someone walks into our office and offers us . . . free property,” board member Mark Malloy said.

Board members wanted to know what the district’s financial risk would be under such a lease agreement.

Zaruka said the only risk to the district would be if the golf course were to go bankrupt. To eliminate any financial liability, he said, the board could insist that provisions be included in the agreement to protect the district from financial loss.

Malloy said the idea, while promising because it would safeguard against further development of Sterling Hills, needs to be investigated by the district, including looking at how other cities handle ownership of golf courses.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do on it,” he said. “How does the county handle this with their golf courses? We have to find out how it could possibly work. The last thing we want is to have ownership of a dilapidated course that needs a lot of work.”

Before Zaruka can develop the land, the City Council must give the OK to rezone the golf course property from open space to residential. Doing so will require Zaruka to have a development plan in place.

He envisions 100 homes on 20 acres of the property, but said the ultimate configuration for the development would be decided with input from residents.

Many Sterling Hills homeowners have expressed concern that once Zaruka gets permission from the city to rezone the property for residential development he’ll sell off the entire course.

“Homeowners will be left watching another wave of people mismanage the course who will want to sell the place off for more houses,” resident Matt Talent wrote in a letter to the Camarillo Acorn in December.

Zaruka said he initially responded to such fears by reassuring residents that, as part of the zoning change, he would include restrictions on the remaining 200 acres to ensure that portion remains as a golf course.

“Then I got a brainstorm: Who does recreation in this area—and it’s you folks,” he told the board last week. “I want to go to the city and say, ‘This is one of the conditions that I’m willing to do, is to donate the course to a public entity with a lease-back after a certain amount of time.’”

Board member Neal Dixon said the agreement would need to include language stipulating that if Zaruka does go bankrupt and the course becomes property of the district, the agency could turn it into open space.

General Manager Mary Otten said the district might also need assurances that if the course fell into disrepair “we wouldn’t necessarily need to keep it as a golf course.”

If he can find a developer and secure the needed zoning change, Zaruka said, he plans to eliminate the driving range at Sterling Hills. More and more, golfers are going to digital driving ranges that can analyze their swings, he said.

“Driving ranges are a thing of the past,” he said.

Although one developer with whom he had been in negotiations, Lewis Homes, has backed away from the project, Zaruka said, he still has “three or four developers who are interested.”

“We’re dedicated to that course and to making it work,” he said.

Under review

On Aug. 8 David Moe, the city’s assistant director of community development, sent Zaruka and his developer a preapplication review. Essentially a lengthy checklist, it includes 57 conditions that must be met if the project was to move forward.

The big items included the need for a general plan amendment to allow for more density on the proposed property. Should the city agree to amend the general plan, Zaruka would then need to get the council to approve rezoning the property from open space to residential.

In addition, the city said the original golf course agreement limits the lots it covers “to golf course-related uses.”

The list of provisions covers all aspects of the proposed community, including parking, architecture, lot size, soil samples, studies of fault lines (the proposed location of the homes, according to a report, sits on a fault), traffic, stormwater drainage, sewage and water.

After last week’s board meeting, Zaruka said he’s invested two years of effort and expense so far on the project, but he has a limit.

“ I’ve given myself five years,” he said.

This article was edited Aug. 19, 2019 at 3 p.m. to indicate that Zaruka would lease back the golf course from the park district. After 30 years, the property would be wholly owned by PVRPD. It was also edited to reflect that it was a long-range planning meeting and not a park district board meeting. Additionally, the quote attributed to Elaine Magner was, in fact, said by Mary Otten.

Below is Mr. Shrum’s letter with our responses. In this short letter there were at least sixteen misstatements and out and out falsehoods. His letter is in block print and our response is in bold italics.

Mr. Shrum’s letter to the Acorn – Aug 30 and Our response.

I am writing regarding the article in the Aug. 16 Acorn stating, “Golf course owner says park district can have property.”The proposed transaction with the owner of the Sterling Hills golf course and the Pleasant Valley Recreation and Park District

Wrong – This meeting was simply a discussion with their long range planning committee to see if they had any interest in owning the golf course.

is not a gift at all.

Wrong – It is a gift. Our family would no longer own the golf course. The PVRPD would own it.

As reported, it is a confusing offer of simultaneously gifting land to PVRPD and also collecting lease payments from them.

Wrong – As lessee we would pay the PVRPD a negotiated lease payment.

That makes no sense.

Wrong – It makes perfect sense. It is a common practice for recreational venues.

That deal would be contingent upon the City of Camarillo amending the General Plan to allow Mr. Zaruka to build 99 high-density homes on the golf course.

Wrong -There has only been some conceptual drawings of homes that are of the same density as in the current Sterling Hills development. No final style or size of homes has been determined.

Such an intrusive housing development on the golf course is widely opposed by Sterling Hills homeowners.

Wrong – A small group of homeowners would oppose any development. We will continue to communicate our plans as we methodically go forward. The golf industry is in crises and we want to save our course.

It will decrease the value of all Sterling Hills homeowners’ properties by changing the ambiance and view for which these homeowners paid a substantial premium.

Wrong – By shrinking the property and increasing green and desert-scape the views for a large majority of the homeowners will improve. Since the homes will likely be higher priced than many in the current development, values will likely not be affected.

Additionally, it will increase traffic,

Wrong – since the plan is mostly on Beardsley, Sterling Hills traffic will not be affected.

noise and water usage for the entire surrounding communities.

Wrong – We will be reducing our already restricted supply of water with new landscape designs.

Another concern is the sustainability of the golf course.

Right and Wrong – We want the sustainability. That is why we need to make these changes. The golf course industry is in free fall. There have been many closings, especially in California. Sterling Hills, as it is currently positioned, will not survive under any ownership without substantial changes.

Golfers do want a driving range; they are not “a thing of the past,” as stated by Mr. Zaruka.

Right and Wrong – Certainly. A full golf range would be preferable, but it is not a sensible use of the valuable land. Technology, such as golf tracers, and other similar technologies are offering alternatives, many better than the traditional driving range.

Also, the plans to severely shorten the golf course to make room for the 99 houses will make it much less desirable. Golfers will choose other golf course options in Ventura County, and the Sterling Hills golf course would likely spiral down.

Absolutely Wrong – The championship golf course we envision, as drawn by noted golf course architect, Forrest Richardson, would keep Sterling Hills a championship par 70 or 71 golf course that would be more playable for juniors, ladies, and just plain duffers. It will make Sterling a more desirable course and increase our market share.

It also appears that the golf course owner’s previous promises to reinvest money in the golf course have diminished.

Wrong – We continue to improve the course. We have spent over $300,000 for new carts, maintenance equipment, landscaping, pump, turf filling sand traps, etc, etc. We just finished a nice desert-scape improvement on #5.

This proposal appears to be another “plan of the month”

Wrong – This was not a proposal – just a feeling out process. We want to assure the community that we are serious about securing the golf course indefinitely. This came from a legitimate concern of the residents, that this development would just be the start of completely developing the course into homes. We have been out front with our methodical approach to this project.

we should anticipate seeing many more, all at the expense of the homeowners.

Wrong – The homeowners will benefit with no expense to them, including an opportunity to use land behind 150 of their homes.

We urge members of our Sterling Hills community along with our neighbors and council members to reject all such proposals. – Jerry Schrum Camarillo

We will continue to seek feedback from the residents, once a plan is in place. Once chosen, the developer will then submit a formal application to begin the process. This process will always include discussions with all the stakeholders. Mr. Shrum will be welcomed to contribute to the process, but not get away with false and misleading statements.

Schrum is with the Save Sterling Open Space Steering Committee.